NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. - The narrow passageway that twists and turns its way among enormous granite boulders is not called the Lemon Squeezer for nothing. So tight is the fit, in fact, that you have to prove you can negotiate it by first passing through an equally narrow wooden gate labeled the Squeezer Gauge. Needless to say, both were huge hits with my 12-year-old daughters - and every other kid that day last summer - at Lost River Gorge, one of the dozens of long-standing family-focused attractions in New Hampshire's majestic White Mountains.
And so had it been for me in the summer of 1966 - and for my mother in the summer of 1936. For more than 200 years in fact, the White Mountains - over 500 square miles of the Northeast's highest and most rugged terrain - have been New England's summer adventure destination. At first, it was primarily the well-to-do, arriving by train to spend weeks, if not longer, in rustic elegance at hundreds of grand resorts, a handful of which survive. When not engaged in genteel sports and activities about the expansive grounds, they forayed out into nature via horseback or on foot.
Then came the era of the two-week vacation and the family car. Cabin courts and roadside attractions sprang up along the valley floors, catering to the new wave of more modest, but also more mobile, visitors, among them Clark's Trading Post with its trademark trained bears; the Flume Gorge, a series of wooden boardwalks that lead up a narrow, natural chasm; the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tram (the first in North America); Lost River and its rival, the Polar Caves. The 1950s brought the addition of kiddie-themed amusement parks, places like Story Land, Santa's Village, and Six Gun City. This was the White Mountains that I had grown up with and that I started sharing with my daughters in 2005.
So far, we've been there five times, most recently last August for my birthday. And with the high-profile exception of the Old Man of the Mountain, the granite-faced New Hampshire state icon that disintegrated from on high above Franconia Notch in May 2003 - all of the marquee attractions I had known as a boy are still around, though generally expanded, upgraded, and modernized.
But there are plenty of new ones as well, most notably of the action-adventure variety. Leading the downwardly mobile charge have been the area's ski resorts, which finally realized that with all their vertical real estate, there was no reason to continue taking summers lying down. The result has been an adrenaline bonanza for mountain bikers, zipliners, and enthusiasts of water parks and rope courses - thus making the White Mountains even more of a "can't miss" proposition for active families.
But unless you want to spend a full month hitting them all, you're going to have to miss some things. So you'll have to pick and choose, with much of the choosing depending upon the age and interests of your children. The first choice will be where to start. Practically speaking, the White Mountains can be divided into two functional halves. To the east lies the Mount Washington Valley, whose center is the historic, full-service resort village of North Conway. To the west lies the Franconia Notch area, whose tourist center is the former logging town of Lincoln. Connecting the two along the south is the 25-mile long Kancamagus Scenic Byway ("The Kanc"), itself worth a half-day of leisurely exploration. Linking them from the north is Route 302, which traverses spectacular Crawford Notch.
Fortunately, each offers a heaping portion of all the White Mountains have to offer. But if you've never been there, it's probably best to start at the top - or at least with access to it - in the Mount Washington Valley. At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the Northeast, and the one true must-do. If at all possible, climb it. (Allow five to six hours.) If not, you can drive it. But the more historical and memorable option is to take the world's first (1869) mountain cog railway up to the exposed summit for the view that, on a clear day, extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
From the base of the cog railway, it's a short drive to the majestic, 110-year-old Mount Washington Hotel, one of the White Mountains' other man-made wonders. The magnificent views here, however, are also internal - down its lengthy grand hall, across its expansive porch, and back into another era altogether.
For our first glimpse of the brave new era of White Mountain activities, we went to Attitash Mountain Resort in Bartlett, where it all began in 1976 with construction of America's second alpine slide, a winding plastic trough that you slide down at speeds approaching 25 m.p.h. on a wheeled sled. Today, Attitash has three of them, all almost a mile long, and the girls spent a full day racing their parents and each other before hitting the three water slides, the climbing wall, and the bungee trampoline. (In 2010, Attitash added a mountain coaster.) They enjoyed it so much they insisted we return the next summer. And we did, even though there are now three additional ski resorts that offer similar lineups of thrilling summertime activities.
With all there is to do, you might think the White Mountains would be overrun. And though the tourist towns and attractions can get crowded, especially in August, there's still plenty of wide-open space. Most of the White Mountains are part of an 800,000-acre national forest, the largest in the East, allowing those so inclined to find plenty of room to breathe and enjoy the same natural beauty that brought the first vacationers here in the late 18th century.
And what better way to do both than on a vigorous mountain hike? For my family last year, that meant the Franconia Range, whose highest peak, Mount Lafayette, tops out at 5,249 feet. The nine-mile loop took us six hours, and, as much as my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it and the views over the vast Pemigewasset wilderness, the girls were a little less enthusiastic. I'm afraid it will be a few more summers before the appeal of the White Mountains themselves can compete with all the man-made attractions they contain. Come to think of it, I was the same way when I was their age. In any case, we will be back.